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  • Catching Up: Santana, Taj Mahal and a déjà vu ‘Blue Christmas’

    Posted by Ben Fong-Torres

    By Ben Fong-Torres It’s short shrift time. I have a life that’s ripe (and slightly wrinkled) for blogs and tweeting; for facebooking and updating. I’m just no good at it. My last column here on AsianConnections was about the memorial in late July for my sister Shirley. My last posting on the authors’ site, Redroom, was about a radio promo tour I did (20 stops, all on the phone...

A Fine Film Fest, and a Top Ten List:Why I Love (Hate) ‘American Idol’

Ben Fong-Torres

A Fine Film Fest, and a Top Ten List: Why I Love (Hate) American Idol

MOVING PICTURES: Asian American films are rocking. That was evident at the 24th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, which screened 126 films and videos over eleven days and nights in three Bay Area cities last month.

Shawn Wongs Americanese, directed by Eric Byler (Charlotte Sometimes) and based on Wongs novel, American Knees, opened the festival at the grand old Castro Theater, where an organist still performs before the curtains rise. The film stars Joan Chen and Chris Tashima (Visas and Virtue), along with Allison Sie (whos also the films exec producer), Kelly Hu, Sab Shimono, and Michael Paul Chan. After the screening, what appeared to be the entire cast and crew went on stage to field audience questions.

Although I cant report that the crowd went wild over this romantic drama, about a Hapa college professor caught in a fragile love triangle, Americanese did come into the festival fresh from SXSW in Austin, where it won both an audience award for best narrative film and a special jury award for best ensemble cast. (For an excellent overview of the film, go to IMDiversity.com and look for a review by Stewart David Ikeda.)

The closing night feature was Journey From the Fall, a feature focusing on the aftermath of the Vietnam warfrom a Vietnamese perspective, from director Ham Tran, with gorgeous cinematography by Guillermo Rosas (in Southeast Asia) and Julie Kirkwood (in California). The film, which also screened at Sundance, tied for the SFIAAFFs Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature, with Water, the third film in a triology (along with Fire and Earth) directed by Deepa Mehta.

The festivals own award in that category went to Punching at the Sun, set in Queens shortly after September 11, 2000 and directed by Tanuj Chopra, with a special jury award to Colma: The Musical and its director, Richard Wong. Colma is a town, south of San Francisco, best known for its cemeteries. Its here that a band of teens decide to add a little life to the old burg by mounting a musical.

Among feature documentaries, the top prize went to Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story, directed by Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim, with a jury award to Chinese Restaurants: Latin Passions, directed by Cheuk Kwan. The Audience Award for best doc went to Sentenced Home, directed by David Grabias and Nicole Newnham.

The festival, presented by the Center for Asian American Media (formerly NAATA) at theaters in Berkeley and San Jose as well as San Francisco, also paid tribute to the late director Kayo Hatta (Picture Bride) and actor Pat Morita, while James Shigeta, the pioneer Asian American leading man, received a spotlight retrospective, with an onstage interview conducted by documentary maestro Arthur Dong. Other stars who graced the festival included Tamlyn Tomita, Jason Scott Lee, Esai Morales, Daniel Dae Kim, Collin Chou, Kieu Chinh, and Michelle Krusiec.

From the SFIAAFF directors (Chi-hui Yang and Taro Goto) to the filmmakers representing 23 countries to the publicists (Larsen Associates) to the big crowds, it was a festival well done.

AMERICAN I-DOH!: Whats it been nowthree seasons of Idol? Four? Lets seeKelly ClarksonReuben StuddardFantasiaCarrie Underwoodwith Bo Bice, Clay Aiken, Justin Guararino and of courseWilliam Hung grabbing their own shares of the spotlight?

However many, Dianne and I have watched em all. Suffered through the auditions, weathered the drippy ballads, rolled our eyes at the judges, TiVoed past the inevitable commercials before each elimination, and wondered why we stick with the show. Its so awful, so contrived, so manipulative, so stretched out and yet we watch. We and thirty million others, twice a week, while high quality comedies, dramas and news magazines go ignored.

We watch because we get to know, in a slick, surface-level way, these kids whove survived the cattle calls and that culture-shocking week in Hollywood; we get to like and dislike certain ones, and we want to see who wins and loses. And we like to complain about the results. As it did with Bush (at least the second time), America often gets it wrong.

I also like picking at elements of the show that drive me crazyuntil the next episode, which drives me crazier still. Here are my top/bottom ten:

1. Ryan Seacrest. Like a male Vanna White, hes a pretty but empty hat. The fact that he got a star on Hollywood Boulevard says a lotand none of it goodabout the state of American show business. I love hating his gratuitous knocks on Simon Cowell, the only real judge on the panel. Once, after a typical Cowell putdown of a contestants efforts, Seacrest snarled, How about some constructive criticism, Cowell? As if Randy Jackson has ever said anything beyond a little pitchy for me, man, or as if Paula Abdul has ever said anythingat all.

2. Randy. Its all pitchy, you know what Im sayin? And everyones a dawg, a dude, or a man, even if youre a young woman. That gets tired, dawg. I dont have problems with Randy mentioning his impressive resume as a producer and bass player, but itd be nice to hear him dip into his knowledge base and offer some actual criticism beyond that wasnt the best for me, Dude

3. Paula. Someone should remind her that shes a judge, and not a cheerleader, groupie, or faux Mom. Give her a video of Dancing with the Stars. Or of any reality competition show. No judge jumps up and dances during the contestants performance, and stands, clapping and whooping, at the end of a number. Nobody but Paula. And when she finally sits down, she says nothing relevant to that performance mainly because she was too busy screaming through the song. So she hears what Randy says, echoes him, adds some gush, and is done. Unless she gets into slapping Simon around for (inevitably) being more critical than her.

4. The rotation: Randy-Paula-Simon. Idol should take another cue from Dancing and call on different judges for initial comments. Forcing Paula to be first as happened once, when, in a huff during the auditions, she and Jackson switched seatsmight, just might force her to issue a halfway original thought. And the routine of the indecisive Randy (pitchy but a-ight, man), the puff mommy (Youre a wonderful light and made that song your own; this competition NEEDS you!) to the tough-talking Simon needs shaking up.

5. The singers brain lock. Or stubbornness. How many times do the judges (and, behind the scenes, the producers and vocal instructors) have to tell them about the importance of their song choices? And how many times do we have to hear them say they chose what turns out to be a wrong song because it was their grandmothers favorite?

6. Network needs, Part I: Do we really need to have it pounded into us that American Idol airs live? Especially since its live only in a portion of the country? Its not Ryans fault, but its laughable to hear him wedging the L-word into every remark going into or coming out of commercials: Well be back. Hang on, LIVE!

7. Double the pain: When a contestant has been voted off, why make them perform the song that earned them the trip to the plank? Why not let them do a personal favoriteif only to spare the audience of a repeat from the night before? Clearly, the loser is prepped for the possibility, as evidenced by the farewell video, in which they speak about their experiences in the past tense. So why not work up a song as well?

8. Actually, on second thought, why force them to sing at all, at that moment of defeat? Just rerun their best performance from the past, if there is one. If not, just get Simon and Paula into a slapping match. Thatd be more fun than any song.

9. Voted off. Uh, Ryan, thats not what happens. The losing contestant merely got the least votes.

10. Network needs, part dos: Does Fox, which has stretched the show out beyond reason and is charging megabucks for commercials, really need to show product shots (like a sparkling bottle of Coke) on a screen behind the contestants during the show, and add a logo bug on the lower left of the screen, to boot? Hows that for a rhetorical question?

Thats it. There are a couple of other nits, having to do with the whole audition process, and the cynical, downright mean way the eliminations are choreographed and scripted (as if the contestants arent nerve-wracked enough), and on and on. But I dont want to overdo it.

After all, I am a big fan.

Ben plays host on his own home page. It's loaded with celeb photos, articles and goodies, all at www.benfongtorres.com.